Introducing The Stoplight Approach

A program that helps children manage their emotions

By Focus on the Family Canada staff

We are very pleased to feature a brief interview with the founder of The Stoplight Approach, a program that helps children and their caregivers with regulating emotions. We first heard about The Stoplight Approach some time ago, but recently had the privilege of meeting Cherilyn Orr and some of her colleagues.

WTB: If you had to summarize what The Stoplight Approach is in a paragraph or two, what would you say? 

Cherilyn: The Stoplight Approach is designed to help the children we care for better understand themselves and others so that they can build stronger relationships. The approach is based on brain science that we have simplified into the common language of a stoplight, so that even a three-year-old can understand and use the concepts. We use the idea of red, yellow, and green and simple colour association to teach adults and children alike about the brain stem, limbic system and neocortex accordingly. From there, it’s as simple as ABCDE: 

A.    Awareness of your emotional state. 
B.    Regulate your behaviour
C.    Use empathy to connect with those around you, 
D.    Decide what kind of person you want to be. 
E.    Engage with the world around you.

With this language, we can understand our own brains, as well as those of the people around us, which enables us to identify and manage our emotions as well as meaningfully connect with others. This is the key to emotional well-being and unlocks the door to healthy relationships. Our goal with Stoplight is to foster environments that connect people, create caring communities, and give hope for a kinder world.

WTB: How was The Stoplight Approach developed? 

Cherilyn: The initial idea of The Stoplight Approach began when I was overwhelmed with trying to parent and teach my adopted children. One day, when one of my daughters threw herself on the floor in a fit of rage, a friend of mine lay down next to her, talked to her, and within fifteen minutes had her sitting back up and working at a table. I was amazed. This was something that would normally have taken me an hour or more to accomplish.

I asked my friend how she did it and she had used the colours of a stoplight to explain to me a child’s brain and their behaviour needs. That sparked a passion inside me. I had seen it work once and I wanted to know how I could do it again and teach others to do the same. This led me on a journey of thousands of hours spent researching ideas from top scientists and research from around the world on neuroscience and its connection to child development.

Every year I teach a course at a college and, at the time, I began integrating my research into my curriculum. Later I moved to Uganda with my family and was asked to come into a school and go from class to class teaching about bullying prevention. In creating a program, I simplified what I was teaching at a university level and used the stoplight to help the students and teachers alike understand emotions and relationships.

The children went home telling their parents about red, yellow and green, so the parents asked if I could teach a one-hour parent seminar for them at an international school. Sitting in that seminar was a Ugandan mother of four who approached me and told me that this needed to be taken to every school across the country. She said, “Imagine it, The Stoplight Approach.” And that is when The Stoplight Approach was born.

WTB: Who is it for?

Cherilyn: We all have brains and we all have emotions, so this Stoplight Approach is for everyone. We can all benefit from understanding ourselves and others, but The Stoplight Approach is especially helpful when working with children.

Over the years we have found Stoplight to be particularly helpful for those caring for vulnerable children, those with adverse childhood experiences, and children with special needs, because it gives them a voice. In my own home I had three biological children before I adopted four more and fostered several others and I learned that all the information in the parenting books I had read did not work for my fostered and adopted children. 

I could send my biological daughter to her room and have her read three books and come back to me and I would have a child who was ready to listen and obey. But with my adopted daughter, a time out would foster feelings of rejection and abandonment. Instead of reading books she destroyed them, and the room. Instead of regrouping, the situation would escalate and it would be even longer before we could get back to the original activity or situation. I learned that every child needs to be taught in the context of relationship, but these children especially need an approach that makes them feel safe and valued in order to train them.

The important thing is that The Stoplight Approach is a philosophy, not a program. It’s all about building emotional well-being rather than just managing and controlling behaviour. If we can teach children how to identify their emotions and their needs, we can better meet their needs and teach them how to voice their needs in appropriate ways. They learn to regulate their emotions and their behaviour. With that foundation, as they grow, we can model and teach them the skills they need to connect meaningfully with others, build healthy relationships and reach their full potential.

WTB: What impact have you have seen from using The Stoplight Approach? 

Cherilyn: The impact started in my own home. From that first moment the concept of a stoplight was used with my adopted daughter, I have been using it on a daily basis with my family. That is by no means to say that I’m a perfect parent. I’m the first to admit that I’m far from it. The difference is that I now have the tools that help me understand myself and my children far more than I did before. This has made me a better mom because with that understanding I am now able to meet the underlying needs, not just manage the outward behaviour.

The impact that I’ve seen in my own home I have also seen first-hand in families and schools around the world, in over ten countries. The Stoplight Approach is being used everywhere from the slums of Africa to refugees in Greece; from classrooms in England to homes in Canada. Hundreds of parents and teachers have seen dramatic improvements in the relationships of their children and students and in their own lives as well.

WTB: If people want to learn more, where would they go to obtain training or purchase materials? 

Cherilyn: Our website at has all our resources, from our parenting and teaching books to a free download to get you started. You can also buy many of our books from Amazon. If you have any questions or want further assistance, we have trainers across Canada and would love to walk this journey with you. Simply visit the website and fill out the “contact us” form. 

Editor's note 2023: Cherilyn's new book Signals, produced in partnership with Focus on the Family, is available here


Cherilyn Orr is a teaching professor at Vanguard College in Canada and has worked with families and educators in Canada, Uganda, Greece and England to help build safe schools, safe homes, safe communities and resilient children. The Stoplight Approach that Cherilyn developed is based on the latest research in brain science as well as her years of experience as a teacher (early childhood, primary, special needs), as a mom to seven children through birth and adoption, and as a foster mom.